Andrew Collins: A jowly good fellow

Admiring the make-up job on 37-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio as a 77-year-old J Edgar

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The biggest upset in this year’s Oscar nominations was surely the total, across-the-board snub afforded J Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s fine, penetrating and unsqueamish biopic of the FBI boss whose reign survived eight presidential administrations until his death in 1972. Usually, Clint gets an automatic place at the Oscars, whatever his latest directorial offering, but not this year.

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It’s a shame, not just because Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the most convincing portrayals of his entire career (better, in my opinion, than his turn as Howard Hughes in the Oscar-showered The Aviator), but because… it’s a film that’s covered in make-up.

If nothing else, the Academy should have honoured the work of make-up artist Sian Grigg, credited with Leo’s make-up, and Duncan Jarman, who worked with her on Leo’s prosthetic make-up effects. (About 15 different make-up artists are credited, including a “prosthetic appliance fabricator” and a “contact lens technician”.) To say that J Edgar is a triumph of latex over adversity is not faint praise.

Leo, who is 37 but still looks about 17, must age 50 years over the film’s 137 minutes, from 20-something hotshot in the Justice Department to his septuagenarian dotage, along the way piling on the pounds of middle-aged spread (or “solid weight” as Hoover vainly refers to it, keen to stay in shape as an example to his agents). It’s always a task making Leo look his own age, never mind 70, and the team do a sterling job.

Naomi Watts also ages, although the transformation is more subtle. As Hoover’s number two and rumoured lover Clyde Tolson, the team of rubberisers working on 25-year-old Armie Hammer (last seen playing the twins in The Social Network) had more work to do, and to be honest, when he’s an old geezer, the latex is not quite as convincing. I’m afraid he looks like he’s wearing a full Halloween mask of an old man. Or a Doctor Who monster from the 70s.

When a lot of rubber is applied to an actor’s face, those wishing us to suspend our disbelief take a huge risk. Remember Jon Voigt done up like a Spitting Image puppet to portray Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor? He looked ludicrous (mind you, this was Pearl Harbor, so there was less to lose.) At the other end of the scale, Tom Cruise was unrecognisable as the studio exec in Tropic Thunder – to the point that he was uncredited – and you couldn’t see the join. When Dustin Hoffman appeared in Little Big Man in the 70s as an ancient old man, it was ground-breaking stuff at the time. Technology has come a long way, but you can’t latex over every crack.

Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in The Hours remains legendary for all the wrong reasons. At least Steve Martin’s was supposed to be funny in Roxanne.

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All of which points us back to Leo as Hoover. It’s a lot to do with the lighting, and the design, and the way the actor holds himself, but I genuinely feel it’s a make-up triumph. You could reach out and touch those jowls – I wish it had been in 3D. Still, it’s a triumph unrecognised by the Academy. I wonder if the older members of that august institution are more critical of young men playing old? Their jowls are 100 per cent real.